The New Culture of the Eighteenth Century

As Virginia plunged into the eighteenth century, it left behind memories of disease, low birth rates, and a colony that was teetering on the edge of failure. The next century offered more hope than the last as colonists began to settle into life in the Americas. As time progressed, Virginian culture became more sophisticated, as did economic and social structure. Virginians were no longer united in their struggle to overcome starvation and survive in the New World; social classes based on economic status quickly began to emerge in the new century. A select few were able to rise among the other members of the society and form what was known as the gentry – a small fraction of the population that obtained an amount of wealth previously unheard of to Virginian planters. This new level of extraordinary wealth helped to form a new and distinct patrician culture that was based not only on race, as it had been in the seventeenth century but on gender and class as well. Eighteenth-century society differed from the seventeenth century due to an increased amount of wealth which was able to be obtained due to the longer lifespans of the colonial people.

The most important social change in the eighteenth-century was the divergence of Virginian society into two separate and distinct cultures. No longer was there one unanimous nor homogeneous class struggling to survive – an elite class emerged and separated itself from the middling and poor colonists, creating a separate social sphere in which only those with extraordinary amounts of wealth could join. This class became

Robert “King” Carter, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. (http://www.stratfordhall.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/thomas.jpg)

known as the gentry, and despite the small amount of colonists who were able to reach the financial requirements of the gentry, they were able to exert their power over the much larger, but much poorer, social classes. With each generation living longer than the past one, it was easier for one to obtain wealth. A longer life meant more opportunity to enter in a field which would provide the most amount of profit. Longer lifespans also meant that people were living long enough to have children, to which their money would be passed onto when they died. Wealth was power in early Virginia, and with so much wealth in the hands of so little of the population, an unfair distribution of power was created.  With wealth came the acquisition of property, and with property came the ability to serve in court. Simply being a member of the gentry guaranteed political power, which in turn meant that being a member of a lower class was a factor that would stifle your political voice. The political voice of those who did not own land was silenced completely due to the inability of a non-landowning citizen to vote. Power was secured in the hands of members of the gentry, and thus allowed them to manipulate and use laws to their advantage. The idea of giving power to those with the most wealth is one that went unchanged into the eighteenth-century.

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The Westover plantation, built by the Byrd family. The Byrd family belonged to the gentry.
(Taken By Angela White)

The way in which one’s wealth was determined changed over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the 1600s, the few who were considered upper class planters were not able to enjoy nearly as many riches as the gentry of the 1700s. An upper class planter in the seventeenth century likely had very few indentured servants, a small amount of land, and was most likely barely making ends meet. The landscape of Virginia was vastly uniform in the seventeenth century, and it was not until the 1700s when a plantation culture began to form. Virginians regarded their homes and their possessions as “tangible evidence of success and failure” and thus began to build plantations that would showcase their wealth. This is evidenced by the Page family’s Rosewell plantation which was constructed with the intention of rivaling that of the Williamsburg Governor’s Palace. The mansions and vast plantations of the eighteenth century were a stark difference in comparison to the small wooden homes of the 1600s which usually only contained one or two rooms.

The goal of the Virginia gentry was to create an aristocracy that mirrored the one in English society, and “looked to the mother country for refined models of behavior and family organization.” (Treckel,127) In the early years of Virginia, it was difficult for colonists to preserve their English ideals in the New World. In the seventeenth century, colonists were considered lucky if they were able to live long enough to produce children, and often died before they were able to establish their dominance over their wife and children. However, at the turn of the century, the lowered rate of mortality and increased life expectancy meant that for the first time in the colony, Virginians had a chance at establishing the patriarchal culture that could be found in England. Family life proved to be more stable and men of the new century were able to exercise control over their wife and children. The theme of family life was, simply put, male dominance, which was something that men of the seventeenth century failed to establish as strongly and as plainly as they had hoped to.

The main differences between the seventeenth and eighteenth century were presented through the expansion of Virginian culture and the further development of architecture. The 1600s were a time of sufficiency, where the main goal of the society was not wealth, but instead survival, and the most valued trait was that of perseverance. As Virginia began to settle and stabilize, they turned from needing the bare minimum to coveting excess and enjoying the splendors they could afford to enjoy. The size of homes, at least for those in the gentry, grew exponentially. Unfortunately, the rise of plantation culture led to a rise in slave labor and also helped in establishing a classist society. Distinct lines between social classes were also drawn, which led to a separation between members of the gentry and members of lower economic classes. The definition of upper class was dramatically changed in the shift of centuries, while the standards of the lower classes remained largely unchanged. The establishment of the gentry and the resulting change in culture were the key signifiers of Virginia’s entry into a new century.

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